Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2001 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
The Nagorno Karabagh Conflict: Why Precipitated Optimism has Backfired Armenian News Network / Groong June 1, 2001 By Khatchik Derghoukassian and Richard Giragosian The recent announcement by the officials mediating the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, - that their planned summit meeting originally announced for Geneva is now postponed, - affirms recent reports that domestic opposition to the mediation initiative remains firmly entrenched in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the international security body mediating the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, explained that after a regional tour earlier in May they found that `the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan are not yet prepared to accept the proposed solutions to the problem.' The postponement may indeed offer a necessary respite, allowing both leaders to forge a new consensus among their people and offering the OSCE mediators a more realistic timeframe for drafting a new peace plan. The delay may also afford a modification of the initiative's overall lack of transparency and stress on secrecy throughout the process. The last several months have seen an abrupt acceleration in the mediation efforts of the international security organization long engaged in seeking a negotiated resolution to the Nagorno Karabagh conflict. This sudden flurry of effort by the international mediators utilizes the structures and mandates of the OSCE, or more specifically, through its special `Minsk Group' working group empowered to solely address the Karabagh conflict. The composition of the Minsk Group, with its three equal chairing nations, - France, Russia, and the United States, - greatly influences the course of the mediation effort. Much attention has already been devoted to analyzing the course of the mediation and the important considerations and implications for Armenia and Karabagh. But it would be further insightful to approach the study of this ongoing process from a more fundamental, broader perspective. Looking broadly at the past several months of the OSCE initiative, the talks convened in strict secrecy in Paris and Key West have tended to obscure more fundamental aspects of the Karabagh peace initiative. The mediation effort has now gone beyond the earlier stage of talks, as seen in the fifteen meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The mediation effort has now entered the new, more complicated stage of a formal peace process, complete with the mechanisms and devices of the OSCE institutional structure seeking to both cajole compromise and coerce concession. The OSCE peace process, together with its inherent lack of transparency and the exertion of political leverage by its Minsk Group co-chairing nations, is now engaged in a coordinated effort to stabilize the region. New Regional Dynamics Against the backdrop of this new initiative, there is a set of new regional dynamics that greatly enhances the geostrategic standing of the region and has attracted much attention by regional and world powers. Perhaps most significant is the position and policy approach of the United States. On only his tenth day in office, U.S. President George Bush was discussing the details of the Karabagh conflict with French President Jacques Chirac during the Paris meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. In his tenth week in office, President Bush was meeting with the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in the White House following the conclusion of several days of talks opened by Secretary of State Colin Powell. This early Bush Administration effort of engagement in the Karabagh conflict is actually part of a broader strategy with policies regarding the Caspian region placed as a subset to overall U.S.-Russian relations. In this context, the U.S. is seeking to implement policies in coordination, rather than in confrontation, with Russia. Moreover, Washington is currently following Colin Powell's lead in constructing a consensus approach to the whole of Eurasia, from Russia in the east, spanning the Caspian, and on to Central Asia bordering China in the West. Thus, the OSCE initiative, led by Washington, but coordinated with Paris and Moscow, represents only one element of a Grand Strategy. Changing U.S.-Russian Relations The overarching regional dynamic defining the scope of the OSCE initiative is the modified approach to U.S. relations with Russia. The first impression of the American president to the Russians was fearful apprehension, stemming from his rhetorical hard-line flourishes articulated by Bush in the campaign and during his first weeks in office. From his heralding of unilateral missile defense to his rabid reaction to Russian overtures to Iran in weapons sales and nuclear assistance, the Bush team first appeared as a Reagan administration revisited. This trend waned, however, as the more realistic and less rhetorical approach of Secretary of State Colin Powell overcame the more conservative camp centered around Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Seeking to draft a new post-Yeltsin blueprint based more on common interests than conflicting aims, the Bush Administration has quietly, but steadily, revised its dealing with Russia. The most conspicuous sign of this new approach is seen in Central Asia, with the U.S. pursuing a constructive and cooperative policy in support of shared Russian interests in containing the increasing Islamic threat to the Central Asian states. This bilateral cooperation seeks to stabilize the region and enhance security through coordinated moves between Washington and Moscow. For the United States, the converging interests in a stable Central Asia also assists in the overall U.S. strategy dealing with China. A stable and secure Central Asia is in both Russian and American interests and is made more important as a counterweight to the gradually broadening of Chinese influence and expansion throughout the region. Therefore, the new effort to pursue a cooperative approach with Russia based on shared interests is also at the core of the OSCE initiative. In the words of the U.S. official acting as Minsk Group co-chair, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh explained, `today, I would say that the outlook and perspective of Moscow, Washington and Paris are virtually identical. That has made for a much greater chance of finding a settlement and moving this forward... There are lots of reasons that lead to a different response from Moscow that is favorable.' (1) Russian cooperation with the United States (and France) in the OSCE Minsk Group's initiative is also a direct result from its propensity to balance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which by virtue of its expansion and exclusion of Russia, is seen as a grave security threat. And by utilizing its position as a Minsk Group co-chair, Russia is seeking to capitalize on its regional advantage over the U.S. in terms of its proximity and patience, a policy `designed to provide Russia with a more stable zone of geopolitical influence.' (2) A Sidelined Turkey A second regional dynamic tied to the OSCE initiative is the consideration of the regional powers. The reliance on Turkey as Washington's proxy power in the region has already been significantly undermined by the Turkish decline from a stable and secure government capable of countering Russian assertions of power in the region to an economically wounded and politically feeble regime. This sidelining of Turkey as deputy and junior partner to the traditional U.S. foreign policies governing relations in the Transcaucasus, has led to a revision of Washington's short-term options in the region. Although the severity of the Turkish crisis is recognized as a paralyzing impediment for Turkey today, it is also seen in both Washington and Ankara as a temporary situation. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been spurred to rescue the Turkish economy and with the pressure of the U.S. and the European Union (EU), has pledged more than half of the overall $16 billion in aid recently secured for Turkey. The EU, in particular, sees the Turkish crisis as a threat to its own security and stresses IMF support, also to dismiss any suggestion of EU support. Fear of an unstable Turkey in proximity to its borders is rampant in Europe. The wishful thinking on the part of the U.S. regarding the state of Turkey actually fails to recognize the true condition of the patient. Even with the IMF infusion of billions of dollars in loans, - the latest IMF `bailout' of an economy in crisis, - Turkey is threatened by fundamental ailments. The more realistic prognosis sees Turkey stricken by a near financial collapse, an ailing economy, and a bankrupt political system. (3) These fundamental problems effectively sideline Turkey as regional actor for at least the short-to-medium-term, and even necessitates a lessening of regional tension to allow a period of political recuperation. Such a lessening of regional tension includes a softening of Turkey's hard-line position seeking to limit the passage of Caspian oil through the Bosphorus, an end to Turkish covert support for Chechen rebels, and a curbing of Turkish military assistance to the region. The diminished role of Turkey offers some positive factors to regional stability, as mentioned above, and may even spur progress in the Karabagh peace process if Turkey is forced to abandon its earlier insistence for a direct role in the talks. More generally, the bias of the Turkish position in the Karabagh conflict, complete with its ignored complicity in the Azerbaijani-imposed blockade of Armenia and its record of Turkish assistance to Azerbaijan, should have already disqualified it from a proper role in the mediation effort. An Opening to Iran The third regional element is the ongoing U.S. overture to Iran. In a subtle process launched in the last years of the Clinton administration, the U.S. is continuing to rethink its approach to Iran. This effort has been spurred with the coming presidential elections in Iran, a contest featuring the reformist camp of President Khatami under threat by the traditional conservative religious theocracy, and accelerated by the proliferation threat posed by the recent Russian-Iranian moves toward increased weapons sales. Interestingly, the Bush Administration recognizes that Iranian policies toward the region has become solidly `Russian centric,' in the words of Iranian expert Mohiaddin Mesbahi, (4) with Russia as a strategic balancer, if not partner. This recognition contributes to the overall course of bettering U.S. relation with Russia, and sees the constructive engagement of Russia as an additional means to build a more positive relationship with Iran. Moreover, Washington is seeking to build regional policy on the reality that Russia is also Iran's natural competitor in the region but understanding the need to overcome the fact that prior U.S. containment of Iran has only encouraged Iran's partnership with Russia and has enhanced Russia's regional role. Thus, the policy of constructive engagement with Iran would allow the U.S. to strengthen its geostrategic position in the region in the long run, and may reasonably reduce Russia's role by removing its place as Iran's strategic balancer. The Timing of the OSCE's New Initiative The most interesting question raised by this new focus on Karabagh should be posed in terms of timing. The OSCE, both as an institution and, at times, from an individual member state initiative, has been engaged in mediating the Karabagh conflict for more than nine years. This leads to the first question. Why such a sudden flurry of activity with the Minsk Group's launching a new initiative with important meetings in Paris, Key West and, at some future date in Geneva? What has really changed, either on the ground in the region, or in the foreign capitals of these nations, that has necessitated such an abrupt diplomatic initiative? The answer to this question of `why now' is to be found in a very unlikely place. The answer is two-fold. First, there is new opportunity for the OSCE's engagement as the converging interests of regional and world powers are now coinciding with the set of these new regional dynamics. Secondly, and even more crucial to interpreting the OSCE's initiative, the answer is to be found in Baku. There has been a subtle and gradual shift underway in Azerbaijan's strategic approach toward the Karabagh issue for some time. This shift in Azerbaijani strategy rests on the internal necessities posed by the looming succession question and due to the realization that its prior policy has not worked. Azerbaijan has recognized the futility of its long-standing strategy of trying to `bleed' Armenia economically. The Azerbaijani government began to modify its strategy several months ago, redirecting its policies from a focus on economic pressure to one of political and diplomatic dimensions. The New Azerbaijani Strategy Since the conclusion of last November's parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, there has been a considerable redirection of its national interests and long-term strategic policies. In terms of decision-making and governance Azerbaijan is in reality a one-strongman state, led and dominated by Heidar Aliyev. The Azerbaijan of the Aliyev-era is currently locked in a transitional stage, seeking to secure stability and legitimacy as the challenge of succession approaches and as the regional realities are changing. The promised wealth and prosperity of the Caspian continues to be far below expectations, Baku's growing internal challenges continue to mount, and its traditional reliance on exploiting the Russian-Turkish rivalry has proven disappointing in the past few years. All these factors have contributed to the need for a shift in policy. As the OSCE peace process moves from the preliminary stage of `proximity talks' to a more institutionalized peace process to be launched in Geneva, this new Azerbaijani strategy seeks to force Armenia (and by extension, Nagorno Karabagh) into an untenable position. Utilizing the postponement of the Geneva stage as a useful period of domestic consolidation, Aliyev is preparing for the presentation and consideration of a new draft peace plan by the Minsk Group. Yet Azerbaijan is also forging ahead with its new policy. Timed to garner the most political and diplomatic leverage possible, Aliyev is steering the peace process in a favorable direction, utilizing the OSCE as an effective vehicle to advance his revised national priorities and isolate the Armenian position into a cage of diplomatic confinement. The Aliyev strategy aims at manipulating the OSCE initiative in order to gain new leverage over Armenia. By obscuring the true nature of the Karabagh conflict, and by adopting a devious outward appearance of reason and righteousness, Aliyev is steadily constructing a diplomatic fagade of sincerity, with a deceptive willingness to negotiate and settle the conflict. Much of this deception has already succeeded as few have questioned Aliyev's apparent willingness to accept a peace plan based on the `common state' model, whereby new `horizontal' relations between Azerbaijan and Karabagh would form the basis for a new Azerbaijan, recast as a vague and undefined `common state' entity. Azerbaijan has never accepted this common state model before and it would be a mistake to blindly accept this very premise given the realities of the Aliyev regime. But to gain an acceptance of the Azerbaijani fagade is to award Aliyev with an early, undeserved diplomatic victory. By manipulating the OSCE process and by adroitly leading the Minsk Group into drafting a peace plan that would be unacceptable to Armenia, Aliyev may emerge as the diplomatic winner despite being the military loser. If the OSCE falls into this quagmire by putting forth a peace plan in violation of Armenia's national interest and, therefore, mandating an outright Armenian rejection, Aliyev will effectively present himself as the statesman and demand that the international community reward him with a new regional policy isolating Armenia and allowing for the ambitious energy projects to proceed without further consideration. The end result would be to overturn the isolation of Azerbaijan, manifested by Washington's Section 907 restrictions (5) and the European reluctance to fully engage Azerbaijan, and portray Armenia as the new `regional pariah state.' Conclusion The precipitated optimism after the Paris and Key West talks has backfired as the conflicting parties were not ready to conclude an agreement during a period of important changes not yet clear enough to confirm the direction of their foreign policies. The consolidation of the course of the new U.S. `Grand Strategy' for the region, as well as the Russian reconsideration of its role as regional power vis-`-vis this new American direction, remain too premature to judge. In other words, we may very well be standing at a stage of renewal, as the parameters of the traditional `Great Game' are modernized. The leaderships of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have not been able to follow this shift and are only now in a phase of reviewing their position and strategy. The regime of Azerbaijani President Aliyev, however, has apparently already redesigned the course of its policy, relying heavily on the strategy of gaining advantage in the shaping and manipulation of international public opinion. With impressive help from Turkey, Azerbaijan is trying to gain new ground in the world press, academia and through the diffusion of its national position through specialized international publications. Although discrepancies within the Azerbaijani society and political elite do exist, the process is directed and driven by the president, in a traditional `strongman' leadership style even more pronounced given that pluralism is not particularly appreciated, and by the fact that the opposition is far too marginalized to be able to exert influence on this discourse. Ironically, the more hard-line position heralded by the nationalist opposition tends to actually help President Aliyev by positioning him as more of a statesman and less of a strongman. In Armenia, the political process in the wake of Key West has generated a more introverted debate shaped by a scarcity of accurate information on the actual negotiations. The deliberate use of certain concepts by some key officials within the closed inner circle around Armenian President Kocharian has in recent weeks only exacerbated internal discord. Specifically, the presidential negotiating team has provoked internal turmoil in what seems to be a direct attempt to fragment the opposition and marginalize the opposition. In contrast with Aliyev, however, Kocharian is significantly less well positioned to take advantage of the political opposition. Partly due to the depth of pluralism in Armenia, the discord over the Key West process that has erupted in Armenia demonstrates the near impossibility for any Armenian head of state to impose an agreement on the people without fatally damaging his legitimacy. Since assuming the presidency in 1998 after the discrediting of former president Levon Ter Petrosian, President Kocharian has embraced the Minsk Group scheme of negotiations with an emphasis on direct talks with his Azeri counterpart. Both the series of direct talks and the OSCE mediation effort to date have been shrouded in secrecy. This secrecy and lack of any degree of participation beyond the small, closed circle of advisers and officials around the president has seriously undermined the political capital legitimizing his negotiating authority, and as this closed circle has narrowe even further amid the public perception that Armenia is being subjected to substantial pressure to grant concessions in return for a settlement, this political capital began to quickly erode. Moreover, the continuing shrouding of the OSCE initiative has only contributed to public cynicism and doubt. This skepticism and the eroding political capital held by the leadership are now seriously obstructing efforts to revise a new Armenian negotiating strategy. It seems that the only prudent course for the Kocharian government to overcome these constraints, therefore, is to broaden the official circle participating in the negotiations. Additionally, this broadening of participation must be supplemented by the inclusion of larger, more representative sectors of Armenian politics as elements in a new direction aimed at countering Azerbaijan's new diplomatic offensive and seeking to restore a national consensus. This is paramount in order to regain the power of unity that was so crucial to the initial victory in Karabagh and effectively defeated the overwhelming Azerbaijani threat. As for the three co-chairing nations of the Minsk Group, their repeated imperatives calling on the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to prepare their public opinion for the forthcoming deal has only provoked a defensive cynicism and was simply perceived as an external threat. And within this delicate process affecting the security (and perhaps survival) of a conflict-weary population, whispers of mutual concessions amid a time of internal political discord only reveal the need for greater openness and honesty in mediating this conflict. Another important issue aside from the lack of transparency is the structural format of the negotiations. Formally including the Nagorno Karabagh leadership in the negotiation table, as the OSCE has promised at various times, could help to provide an atmosphere of trust and reduce the increasingly destabilizing political tension. Such a change is well advised, and should be the natural follow-up to including Iran in the mediation effort. These remedies should have formed the premise of the mediation effort already, especially given the importance of seeking a complex resolution to a conflict that impacts not just the states of the Transcaucasus but all nations pursuing agendas of influence in the Caspian. But the biggest challenge lies in the need to balance the demands of national interest over the constraints of nationalism. Only with this balance can a negotiated resolution to the Nagorno Karabagh conflict be both fair and long lasting. Notes: (1) Remarks before an April 23, 2001 forum `Negotiations on Nagorno-Karabagh: Where do we go from here?' sponsored by Harvard University's Caspian Studies Program. (2) Smolnikov, Sergei. `Russia's Euro-Atlantic Puzzle.' Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Winter/Spring 2001, Volume II, Number 1. P. 62. (3) `Turkish Bailout is joined to a Political Overhaul.' The New York Times, May 18, 2001. (4) Comments by Professor Mohiaddin Mesbahi of Florida International University at an October 2000 conference on Central Asia and the Caucasus convened by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC). (5) Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act codifies formal restrictions on U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan until such time that Azerbaijan takes `demonstrable steps' to end its blockade of Armenia and represents the most visible sign of Western reluctance to fully engage Azerbaijan. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Khatchik Der Ghougassian is a Ph.D. student of International Relations in the School of International Studies, at the University of Miami. He has written as a political analyst in the Armenian and Argentinean press. Richard Giragosian was a professional staff member with the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress specializing in international relations and economics in the former Soviet Union and China. He is the author of the monthly newsletter, "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."